The Role of the Critic

I still remember the exact moment I realized was not going to be an English Major. Upon entering University, I had aspirations of becoming a game critic, a dream later squashed through a stint reviewing free-to-play online role-playing games (MMO’s) back when only the bottom of the barrel games were free-to-play. At the time though, my mission was to review games and an English Major seemed the logical pathway, seeing as it was a major all about writing and critiquing.

I even had the pleasure of being invited to an English Honours meeting, where students are courted by faculty and extolled the pleasures and virtues of pursuing an Honours Degree in English. Upon entering the small and rather appropriately named Reading Room, I was offered a snack of coffee and donuts, the quintessential staples of the undergraduate diet. I collected my GPA booster on a plate and sat down in a small circle with a few other students and faculty.

I don’t recall exactly how the conversation started, but after introductions the topic quickly shifted onto a recent Shakespeare play Keanu Reeves performed in. While I am the first to admit that I am a massive Keanu Reeves fan, both in terms of his public persona and the films that he stars in, I have exactly zero knowledge of his role in Shakespeare plays.

I was the outlier however, as everyone else at the meeting had seen the play and had something negative to say about Mr. Reeves. Each member took a turn providing a scathing criticism of my idol until my turn finally arrived. All eyes fell on me as the department head calmly asked “what’s your opinion Trevor?”

I bought time by quickly taking a massive bite out of my donut, giving me a solid ten seconds of awkward silence as I chewed followed by another eight seconds as I washed down the mass of carbohydrates with coffee.

Following the extended silence and with no clever response coming to mind, I finally replied “Well, I don’t know about Shakespeare, but I liked him in the Matrix”.

The room returned to silence.

Clearly the other members of the meeting were struggling as much as I had to come up with a response, save that their focus was to formulate a reply that did not highlight the conversational detour I had taken.

The department head broke the silence with “well, in your English degree, you will certainly have a chance to read a great deal about Shakespeare!”

I showed myself out shortly afterwards, accepting that the English Degree was not the path for me.

My switch from English to History was not entirely based on this meeting; it also happened to include the lectures as well. While I enjoyed the passion professors brought to their subject as well as their ability to deconstruct and expand upon literature, the critic in me always wondered where the final score was. In video game reviews, scores are critical to the review process, helping to inform and shape the purchasing habits of consumers. Only more recently have video game begun to explore the role of the critic as a way to enhance the experience of the medium.

At the time I was impatient and wondered why scores and final summaries were absent from to the books we read, pushing me further away from an English degree. That and I still did not like Shakespeare, no matter how much of the bard’s literature I read.

In the subsequent years, my view on the critic’s role has changed. I take issue with how the scores of game critics have suffered from inflation (look for a game with a Metacritic score below 50 out of 100 for a clear example) as well as a limited system of grading that serves as a simple reference tool for consumers determining purchases.

By contrast, my appreciation has grown for the ability of critics to expand upon and explain materials. I recently attended a comic book store and found myself in an hour-long conversation (it was a slow day) with a store clerk named Todd over the deconstruction of the hero and the origins of the anti-hero.

Todd’s enthusiasm was infectious and he asked me questions throughout our conversation about my interests in comics (graphic novels if you want to sound pretentious). After a lengthy discussion, he carefully coinsured immense rows of comics arranged in the same manner albums in vinyl record stores are presented, adeptly navigating content dividers between the books emblazoned with archaic symbols that indicated changes in genre and time.

“Aha”, Todd suddenly announced after a bout of intense searching! “You will enjoy this”.

He held out a copy of James O’Barr’s The Crow. “This books marks a landmark point in the development of the anti-hero”, exclaimed Todd. “It’s also half off” he added, pointing to a red sale sticker.

This man new how to appeal to the bargain-hunting Winnipeger inside of me.

I subsequently bought The Crow not out of an initial interest in the book, but from the interest in the story Todd had created in me. Devouring the book in a night, I reflected the next morning that by itself, I would not have enjoyed the story. The story is intensely dark and focuses on an exploration of guilt and the emotions elicited by revenge, themes that at a cursory glance make for a depressing and rather unfulfilling story. Thanks to the social context and literary themes discussed by Todd however, my enjoyment of The Crow multiplied many times over and I flipped eagerly through the haunting images and disturbing character transformation.

The whole experience made me realize we can all be critics in the best sense of the word. Not as belittlers of others work, but passionate advocates of the hobbies and pastimes we cherish. I am a firm believer that you can get people interested in just about anything if you are excited enough about it. Heck, if I can make insects around a grocery store engaging, anything can be entertaining. So how about you; what gets you excited enough to get others excited? What are you passionate enough about that you want to kindle that passion in others?

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Locking Down Motivation

I began training for the Manitoba Marathon’s Relay a few weeks ago. The plan was to keep my first outing low-key. After over-training for a marathon and injuring myself, I intended to keep the distance short; five to six kilometers tops.

After a few preliminary stretches that involved nearly kicking a hole in the wall, I was ready to run. I made a snap decision to leave the door unlocked, as I only expected to be gone 30-45 minutes and did not want to carry keys that would function as sandpaper to my legs.

The run itself went well, with the sunny day and explosion of spring vegetation serving as distractions from the deceptively cold temperature. The biggest hurdles in running are mental and the appearance of a warm day goes a long way in convincing the body it is warm. Cold reality only sets in when you stop running, providing a powerful motivation to keep on running.

Trouble arose however, when I returned to my house and found the door locked. Absent-minded as I may be, I distinctly recalled not locking the door and was thoroughly confused. My roommates were out of the house when I left so how could have this happen?

Did the wind somehow operate a bolt-action door?

Did an agitated youth (the kind I imagine sporting Hammer-time era parachute pants) find his way into my house and decide to lock me out while they helped themselves to my fridge and television?

All possibilities worth considering.

More likely however, one of my three roommates came home after I left and locked the door.

The solution to this was to pound on the door and shout in a tone typically reserved for law enforcement officers before performing a forced entry. My noise fell on deaf ears however and the house remained locked. I went to mash the doorbell, but realized that the button had long-since fallen out; the joys of a house with a rental price around the $300 mark.

At this point, I sat down and reviewed my options. I was locked out of my house, that much was certain. Alerting my roommates was not an option. Kicking down the door, while an easy task if the door’s quality matched the doorbell, would result in a voiding of my security deposit.

To top it all off, I had an appointment in an hour. Thankfully, I work well on deadlines!

At this point, my only option was to run to my roommate’s place of employment and hope that they were on-shift. This created a second problem, as my roommates worked equal distances from my house, but in opposite directions.

Gambling on the Earls restaurant situated to the west of my house based purely on my enjoyment of running that route, I took off. Bolting through suburbs and navigating the ever-changing elevations of a sidewalk that enjoys Winnipeg freeze-thaw cycle, I arrived at Earls in record time.

To my relief, my roommate was on shift and I quickly obtained his key before sprinting home in a mad dash to prepare for my appointment.

Reflecting on the whole incident later, I realized how the curve balls in life help us understand what we are truly capable of. I never planned to add 4km of sprinting on to my run. If I was asked that day if I could sprint 4km after a 6km run, I would have said no. Finding myself locked out however, I began performing a feat I thought impossible. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. I would add that necessity is the mother of motivation as it is during these moments of desperation that our artificial limitations are stripped away and we discover what we are truly capable of.

Next time, I will to throw my keys in the river to brush up on my diving skills…or die trying.

Cheating: Then and Now

checkers

I still remember the first time I experienced cheating. I was in kindergarten and playing a dinosaur-themed version of checkers with a classmate named Braden. The game started out well enough; we moved our checker pieces- delightfully modeled as rubber T-Rexes- across the iconic grid, each space colored to look like rock and lava. This was back when dinosaurs and the floor being made of lava were the two coolest things that a young boy could ask for.

Then it happened.

Braden declares his T-Rex is going to do a quadruple front-flip (or “super-mega flip” as Braden called it) across the board and land on an empty space on my edge of the board, conveniently becoming a King piece in the process.

Gullible as I am, my five year-old mind knew that bull$@%! was afoot. I tried to dispute the maneuver, but Braden simply declared that those were the rules. Of course when I attempted a similar “super-mega flip”, Braden declared that I was not allowed to do that.

Not wishing for blood to be spilled over a game of checkers, I reluctantly finished the game, taking my loss in stride and avoided playing Checkers- or with Braden- ever again. I was always a Chess guy anyways.

A pleasant aspect of board games is that it is really not worth it to cheat. Cheating is typically easy to notice and has immediate and immense repercussions. You are one card falling from your sleeve away from souring friendships and alienating yourself from your gaming group. Unless big money is on the table (i.e. Poker tournaments), there is very little incentive to cheat in board games.

Growing up in the 90’s and 2000 period however, I was also an avid PC gamer during the renaissance of online shooters. Games such as Unreal Tournament, Battlefield, and Alien V.S Predator were staples of my childhood. As much as I love these games, the moment I stepped into the online realm, I encountered cheating on a level that made the super mega-flips of childhood checkers seem…well childish.

Cheating in online gaming commonly took the form of hacks, 3rd party programs that modified a player’s experience or avatar in their favor. Hacks took the form of automatic aiming, one-shot kills, and even flat-out invincibility. A player may have one or more of these hacks, ruining the game for all other players.

Sometimes, I would run across a hack that left me awestruck. One such incident happened during a match of Alien V.S Predator 2, when a player somehow managed to become invincible, invisible, move at twice the speed of other players and kill with a single strike of their spear, which they swung endlessly and was a tell-tale sign the hacker was near. On top of all that, the player found a way to duplicate himself, allowing to avatars to stalk zoom around the level, ripping the other players to shreds.

Moments like that made me walk away from the computer and go outside for some physical activity. I suppose I owe these hackers a thank you for having motivated me to start on the path to completing a marathon.

Marathon running is seeing the silver-lining in what is a tremendous problem with online gaming. The trouble with online games is that the anonymity and the fact that the group of players changes with each match, providing infinite opportunities for cheaters to have their fun implementing hacks, taunting other players, and being all-around dregs of humanity.

With board games, player groups are comparatively difficult to find and once labelled as a cheater, you will have trouble staying within these groups or maintaining friendships. Cheaters even risk confrontation because of their actions face-to-face with a man or woman potentially multiple times their size.

Today, cheating can still be found in both mediums. As long as rules exist for a game, there will be those that seek to bend or break them. As I spend more of my limited gaming time with friends as opposed to strangers, I encounter cheating less and less. Though I will never understand what motivates players to cheat, I do know that the less time I spend playing with anonymous stranger, the better my gaming experience will be, online or offline.